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Title: The Business of Excellence: Building High-performance Teams and Organisations
Author: Justin Hughes
Reviewer: Kate Wadia, Phase 3 Consulting
Reviewer’s Rating: 2 out of 5
Why read a review of a book I rate pretty lowly for HR? ‘The Business of Excellence’, no, I don’t like, but here I point to some scenarios that were of value and I refer you on to what is, in my view, a better read. I’ll also save you the bother of working through it to get to a few points well made. And I keep this brief!
Justin Hughes’ background is as a military fighter pilot for the RAF and that’s important to know, as I’d guestimate that some third of 200 plus pages describe a military context of which I had enough by part 2.
You may feel differently and certainly there is detail here unlikely read before on the Red Arrows. Yet I challenge the assumption that the lessons learned from such environments can be universally applied in business, a premise on which the book is based.
The author is evidently well-read and you’ll pick up some clues on other popular, leading viewpoints about success. It helps if you are of the Jack Welch (in Hughes’ view a “clear thinker of the highest order”) tough-cookie mindset. And I acknowledge the book is titled with ‘high performance’ and not, for example, high CSR or inclusiveness.
Hughes suggests the pursuit of excellence requires a strive for perfection.
The opening draws upon military and sporting lessons to show us a model for high performance through “world class basics” – meaning the setting of clear direction. Direction and leadership are the enablers of execution. Execution, in turn, depends not on detailed plans but on the planning process. You need to re-plan when a complex world interferes.
Chapter 2 explains what excellence is. Hughes suggests the pursuit of excellence requires a strive for perfection. In a small context that’s perfection from everyone; on a larger scale, that means the leadership team. I cannot quite stomach “Excellence starts with the person you see in the mirror.” Nor do I have taste for such a zero tolerance culture (the example given being that of meticulous time-keeping), but I do take on board the encouragement to “run your own race”. Warren Buffet is cited as a role model who stays humble and keeps striving.
Part 2 moves on to look at the foundations, or components, of such excellence: people and capability. HR professionals may find the chapter on people rather obvious. Select for attitude and behaviour not learned skillset, the importance of teamwork or that leadership matters. The most interesting emphasis is the imperative of both task and role clarity.
By capability, the author does not mean skill or talent profile, but rather organisational design and development. This chapter really does little more than extend the scale of the points on teamwork to cover cross-functional concerns. A clear alignment of interest (with reward) and “mission clarity” is required to perform well. Note that the author has called his performance consultancy firm ‘Mission Excellence’.
It could be useful for HR readers to notice the value of Standard Operating Procedures (SOP). There is merit in hearing ideas from such a different mindset too on planning – the idea of a Red Team to stress-test your intentions I’d consider, as well as the advice to “Know the ball that you can’t afford to drop”.
‘The Business of Excellence’ is ideal for leaders in those (extremely!) high-stress environments cited, such as the military, healthcare or asset management.
A lengthy section on delivery – that’s planning, communications and execution – therefore offers the occasional noteworthy idea. I might well remember the quote that “No plan survives first contact with the enemy”. But the communications questions are framed entirely around briefing and omit to mention consultative approaches.
The author says that part 3 on learning could be the most important of the book. Personally I would not style every learning of lessons as a debriefing, so I’d prefer more consideration on this and more options therein.
I stress ‘The Business of Excellence’ is ideal for leaders in those (extremely!) high-stress environments cited, such as the military, healthcare or asset management. These are where Hughes points out leadership comes to the fore. Appreciate the cultural note about a hero mentality, which could be your leading medic, your top sales guy, your legal partner or star fund manager, and how detrimental this is.
Bear in mind firstly a spot-on relevance in these contexts. I refer you to a lesson from the movie ‘Top Gun’ taken by Geoff Colvin in his book ‘Humans are Underrated’. Both books tell me that Tom Cruise isn’t just a teenage heart throb who’s nifty on the heroics of piloting, but someone to learn from to do fabulously with my team at work.
About Kate Wadia
Kate is the Director of Insights at Phase 3 Consulting, independent specialists in people technology in the UK. Her passion at work is for bridging the gap between technology and people at work, translating for HR professionals the language of HR systems and making meaningful their potential. She believes that success with people technology is through people and that people are the differentiator.
Using simple techniques drawn from HR experience, project management, business psychology and analogy with everyday life, Kate presents and explains how to work well with technology and technology projects in an HR leadership role.
With a background in contrasting private and public sector HR management, Kate developed her thinking in seeking for herself to understand her first HR systems project-work. She led Phase 3 as Managing Director before choosing to focus on offering ‘Insights’, through writing and speaking engagements, talent development in HR tech and the continuing development of new industry ideas.
Kate’s guiding principle is that openness offers knowledge-sharing, credibility and trust, best delivered with incorrigible enthusiasm.